Tag Archives: consumerism

Burning Man is the New Capitalism

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My Facebook feed, which had nearly gone dormant for the past week, is once again teaming with life; this means that somewhere, in a nondescript plot of desert, 50,000+ souls are packing tents, scrubbing dust from their hair, and beginning an exhausted journey home from their annual pilgrimage to the Burning Man festival. After last year’s impulsive decision to fund the the trip on student loan debt, I find myself once again relegated to the social media sidelines by financial constraints. One benefit of watching this year’s event unfold at a distance is that it has given me time and space to reflect on my experiences with Burning Man 2012. (more…)

Selling the Social Sciences

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“If it weren’t for all of you I would have lost my mind at my job.” Its a familiar refrain that I hear at lots of small conferences and, occasionally, on Twitter backchannels. Its an amazing compliment to hear that your weak tie with someone means so much, but its also an immensely troubling prospect. Hundreds (maybe thousands?) of highly trained professionals have serious misgivings about their professional associations, their home institutions, and maybe even their life’s work. I had heard variations on this theme most recently this past week when I helped out at the (really, really cool) Engineering, Social Justice, and Peace Conference hosted here in Troy, New York. The conference was attended by an array of people: engineers, educators, activists, and social scientists like myself. Some people worked in industry, others in academia, and a significant portion worked for NGOs like Engineers Without Borders. And again, I just want to reiterate: No single person said the exact phrase above, and I certainly don’t want to (mis)characterize any of the attendee’s personal feelings about their jobs or work. Rather, what I witnessed at ESJP is more accurately characterized as a feeling of “coming home.” Think of it as the positive side of the same disaffected coin. This anecdotal trend was in my mind when I read this Seattle Times article about social scientists finding new and inviting homes in tech companies. Are social scientists finding better intellectual homes in industry than in academia? Or am I connecting two totally separate phenomena? Is it just the pay? More to the point: can social scientists do more and better things for the world working in Silicon Valley than the Ivory Tower?
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Changing the Development Discourse: Access to Networks

Image c/o selector.com

If you watch the documentary “Urbanized” (now streaming on Netflix) you will eventually see an interview with the man pictured above. His name is Enrique Peñalosa and he is the former mayor of Bogotá, Columbia. During his tenure as mayor he instituted several major changes to the city’s physical and social character. His signature accomplishment was a major  bus rapid transit system that is widely regarded by urban planners as one of the most advanced in the world. (See video after the jump.) While the physical changes are no small feat, characterizing his work as simply in the domain of transit or even environmental conservation, would be missing the larger picture. Peñalosa sees urban planning, and specifically access to transportation, as a moral issue. Constitutional rights must extend beyond the juridical or the legalistic sense and into the very physical manifestations of governance. His vision can be summed up in a simple, bumpersticker-ready quote: “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation.” In this brief essay I will apply this rationale to networked computing both in the American context and the developing world. (more…)

Autonomy continued: Technology or Capitalism?

A couple of weeks ago I posted an entry on technological autonomy. It made the point that a nation’s commitment to advanced technologies can result in a situation where its economic well-being is directly counter to the physical or psychological well-being of its people. The point I’d like to make today is that the commitments of corporations to advanced technologies can become similarly antithetical.

The example in that previous post was Japan’s commitment to nuclear power. Here I’ll consider two examples involving specific consumer products: the international sale of sports utility vehicles and the international sale of snack foods.Both examples raise an important definitional question: Which is the driving force, technology or capitalism? It’s a hard question to answer because at a certain stage of development the two are so closely intertwined that it’s often impossible to separate them. On the one hand, the spread of global capitalism would clearly be impossible without mass production technologies. On the other hand, capitalism is clearly the economic model most responsible for the development and exploitation of mass production technologies.

The historian David F. Noble has argued that technology is “the racing heart of corporate capitalism,” implying that capitalism directs the enterprise while technology supplies the motive force. I think you could just as successfully argue that the opposite is true. The best solution is probably to say that the relationship between technology and capitalism is dialectical, or symbiotic. Sometimes technology stimulates capitalism, other times capitalism stimulates technology; in advanced technological/capitalist societies neither could exist without the other. From either perspective an expansion of influence becomes a priority that overwhelms every other consideration, which is another way of defining a condition of de facto autonomy.

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Augmented Activism: A Tactical Survey (Part 2)

Is this an Oxymoron?

Most of our interactions with technology are rather mundane. We flip a light switch, buckle our seat belts, or place a phone call. We have a tacit knowledge of how these devices work. In other words, we have relatively standard, institutionalized, ways of interacting with familiar technologies. For example: if I were to drive someone else’s car, even if it is an unfamiliar model, I do not immediately consult the user manual. I look around for the familiar controls, maybe flick the blinkers on while the car is still in the drive way, and off I go. Removal of these technologies (or even significant alterations) can cause confusion. This is immediately evident if you are trying to meet a friend who does not own a cell phone. Typical conventions for finding the person in a crowded public space (“Yeah, I’m here. Near the stage? Yeah I see you waving.”) are not available to you. In years prior to widespread cell phone adoption, you might have made more detailed plans before heading out (“We’ll meet by the stage at 11PM.”) but now we work out the details on the fly. Operating cars and using cell phones are just a few mundane examples of how technologies shape social behavior beyond the actions needed to operate and maintain them. The widespread adoption of technologies, and the decisions by individual groups to utilize technologies can have a profound impact on the social order of communities. This second part of the Tactical Survey will help academics, activists, and activist academics assess the roll of information technology in a movement and make better decisions on when and how to use tools like social media, live video, and other forms of computer-mediated communication. (more…)

How Cyberpunk Warned against Apple’s Consumer Revolution

It’s a notable coincidence that Steve Job died exactly two decades after Neil Stephenson completed Snowcrash, arguably, the last great Cyberpunk novel. Stephenson and Jobs’ work exemplified two alternative visions of humans’ relationship with technology in the Digital Age. Snowcrash offers a gritty, dystopian vision of a world where technology works against human progress as much as it works on behalf of it. Strong individuals must assert themselves against technological slavery, though ironically, they rely on technology and their technological prowess to do so.

Apple, on the other hand, tells us that the future is now, offering lifestyle devices that are slick (some might say, sterile). Despite being mass produced, these devices are supposed to bolster our individuality by communicating our superior aesthetic standards. Above all, Apple offers a world where technology is user-friendly and requires little technical competency. We need not liberate ourselves from technology; there’s an app for that.

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Values and style are inextricably linked (as Marshal McLuhan famously preached). So, unsurprisingly, the differences between Apple’s view of the future and that of Cyberpunk authors such as Stephenson run far deeper. The Cyberpunk genre has a critical mood that is antithetical to Apple’s mission of pushing its products into the hands of as many consumers as possible. The clean, minimalist styling of Apple devices makes a superficial statement about the progressive nature of the company, while the intuitive interface makes us feel that Apple had us in mind when designing the product—that human experience is valued, that they care. Of course, this is all a gimmick. Apple invokes style to “enchant” its products with an aura of mystery and wonderment while simultaneously deflecting questions about how the thing actually works (as discussed in Nathan Jurgenson & Zeynep Tufekci’s recent “Digital Dialogue” presentation on the iPad). Apple isn’t selling a product, it’s selling an illusion. And to enjoy it (as I described in a recent essay), we must suspend disbelief and simply trust in the”Mac Geniuses”—just as we must allow ourselves to believe in an illusionist if we hope to enjoy a magic show. Thus, the values coded into Apple products are passivity and consumerism; it is at this level where it is most distinct from the Cyberpunk movement. (more…)

Consumer Activism in the Social Factory

Editor’s Note: This post was written in response to PJ Rey‘s “Incidental Productivity: Value and Social Media” and the text is reposted from mrteacup.org.

PJ Rey has a very interesting post up at Cyborgology about issues of production and labor on social networking sites that has some connections with things that I have been thinking about.

The point seems to be a partial critique of the social factory thesis – that social networks exploit the social interactions of their users, turning it into a kind of labor. This critique turns on the idea of “incidental productivity.” Rey claims that some activity on a social network does not fall into the category of labor as defined by Marx; or to put it another way, the Marx-influenced theory of labor is not conceptually broad enough to cover every type of activity that occurs. Rey proposes the concept of incidental productivity, which seems to mean value that is silently produced as a side effect of some other activity that the user is engaged in. The important point is that users are not aware of the value that they are creating, so this is not labor.

So far, I agree with this. There is only one very small point of disagreement, which is where Rey says in the final paragraph, “A quintessentially Marxian question remains: Who should control the means of incidental production?” I claim that this concept of incidental production is ultimately the liberal-capitalist problem of consumer rights and protections. (more…)

Retro-Tech: #OWS’ Complicated Relationship with Technology

all photos in this post by nathan jurgenson

The role of new, social media in the Occupy protests near Wall Street, around the country and even around the globe is something I’ve written about before. I spent some time at Occupy Wall Street last week and talked to many folks there about technology. The story that emerged is much more complicated than expected. OWS has a more complicated, perhaps even “ironic” relationship with technology than I previous thought and that is often portrayed in the news and in everyday discussions.

It is easy to think of the Occupy protests as a bunch of young people who all blindly utilize Facebook, Twitter, SMS, digital photography and so on. And this is partially true. However, (1) not everyone at Occupy Wall Street is young; and (2), the role of technology is certainly not centered on the new, the high-tech or social media. At OWS, there is a focus on retro and analogue technologies; moving past a cultural fixation on the high-tech, OWS has opened a space for the low-tech.

What I want to think about there is the general Occupy Wall Street culture that has mixed-feelings about new technologies, even electricity itself. I will give examples of the embracing of retro-technology at OWS and consider three overlapping explanations for why this might be the case. I will also make use of some photographs I took while there. (more…)

Theory Meets Art: What Apple has to Hide

Pear Tree in a Walled Garden by Samuel Palmer, c. 1829

 

While our collective imagination has been gripped with the images of downtrodden folks in other parts of the world uprising in seemingly spontaneous acts of defiance, here at home, we late industrial consumers continue doing what we do best: passively and uncritically absorbing whatever is in front of us.  In our zeal to dive into the next hot thing that the market offers us, we seldom have occasion to question what is absent—what is quietly being denied us—and what social costs are obscured by the price tag of a commodity.

Apple is an interesting contradiction in consumer society because, on the hand, it seems endlessly capable of producing new devices that we never knew we needed; yet, when we pick them up, they seem almost magical, enabling us to do things we hardly imagined—or, rather, to consume things in ways we never imagined.  In light of its continual innovation and its capacity to generate “cool,” Apple is often seen as progressive organization.  On the other hand, Apple is notorious for placing authoritarian controls on its products.  As the old quip goes: “Linux is great at letting you do what you want to do (if you are willing to stare for hours at line code), Apple is great at letting you do what they want you do, and Windows is great at crashing.”  Of even greater concern, Apple remorselessly outsources it labor to China’s most offensive factories, some of which recently received attention because they had to install nets around the buildings to end a spate of highly-public suicides.

Two recent artworks highlight the underside of Apple’s pristine white carapace. (more…)

Augmented Advertising in Times Square

Crowds in Times Square waving at themselves on the big screen. Photos in this post by nathan jurgenson.

Something interesting has been happening in Times Square this summer. As has been occurring for a century, the crowds gather with necks perched upward looking at all the famously illuminated billboards. But now there is a new type of buzz in the crowd: they stand together facing the same direction, cameras held high and their hands waving even higher. They are not just watching celebrities or models in this the most expensive ad-space in the world; today, they are watching themselves on the big screen.

This is all part of a new billboard for the company Forever 21 currently in use in Times Square in the heart of New York City. It struck me that this billboard is nothing short of a consumer-capitalism-happening, and started snapping photos and thinking about what this all might mean. (more…)